The concept of Karma is often confused and lost, but it is an important part of both the Buddhist and Twelve-Step spiritual programs. The most common English translation of the word karma is “action.” In Buddhism, karma is the basis of samsara. In essence, karma is the foundation of the cause and effect relationship of everything in our world.
Cause and Effect
In Buddhism the word karma is often translated as “action” or “doing.” In this sense, karma is anything we do, think, or say. The concept of causality in Buddhism teaches us that everything that arises has a cause. Nothing springs up spontaneously. Karma is the cause of the world around us. As we learn that happiness comes from within, not anything external, karma is the way in which we cause our future to change.
In the Upajjhatthana Sutta (AN 5.57), the Buddha states:
“I am the owner of my karma. I inherit my karma. I am born of my karma. I am related to my karma. I live supported by my karma. Whatever karma I create, whether good or evil, that I shall inherit.”
Kalu Rinpoche describes karma as:
“the unfailing connection between what we do now and what we experience later.”
According to this our actions, thoughts, and speech define the world we meet each day.
In order for an action to create karma, there must be intention behind it. If we accidentally step on somebody’s toes, this does not create “bad karma.” In order for an action to have karmic consequence, we must have a set intention behind it.
Actions that cause harm to others without our intention, however, are still hurtful to us. Although they do not cause any karma, they may warrant an amends or apology.
There is a common perception, especially in the West, of “good karma” and “bad karma.” However, in Buddhism, this is not the case. Neither God, the Universe, the Buddha, nor anyone else is keeping tabs of your actions and listing them as either good or bad. Karma works in a simpler way. When karmic action is performed, it creates a layout for the future, as we just discussed. The main effect of karmic actions is a suffering or freedom created within us. It is especially important to take note that doing a good deed after a bad deed does not cancel the bad deed out.
Taking Karmic Action
In many Buddhist traditions, there are several prerequisites for an action to be considered of karmic value. Some westerners use the term “premeditated action” to refer to karmic actions. First, there must be intent. In order for an action to have karmic value, the intent to act must be present. If an action is taken without intent, it does not cause karmic consequence. A common question is, “If I lose my temper, and snap, does this create karma even though I had no intent to?” The simple answer is yes. Chances are you hurt someone else and yourself. Also, with examples like these, we at one point had the intention of not dealing with our anger. In short, if we become angry or lose control, our actions do have karma because we refused to deal with our behavior, thoughts, speech, or feelings.
The second aspect of a karma is the preparation. Using the stepping on the toes example, there was not preparation or thought put into the action. In order for an action to be of karmic value, you must prepare either physically or mentally. As with the anger example, karmic value is attached because we prepared by averting our attention from our anger.
The third requirement of a karmic action is follow through. Thinking of performing an action or saying something is not enough to create karma. We must actually follow through with it. However, thoughts are also of karmic value, so harmful thoughts in themselves have karmic value. This is a bit of a tricky one. If we have the thought of doing something hurtful, but do not do it, we have not created karma with our speech or actions, but we are on our way with our thoughts.
Finally, there must be a sense of satisfaction. Often, our immediate response to our actions is pleasure or satisfaction. This initial response is the cap on karmic action. If we are just thinking about saying something or doing something and don’t, it is through this final requirement that we cease the karmic cycle. If we recognize our thoughts of poor action as harmful, we may stop the karma before creating it.
The Buddha said, “There is not fault so serious that it cannot be purified by the Four Powers.” The Buddha taught that in order to purify our karma, we must take some action, and he taught these in the form of the Four Powers.
The first is the Power of Regret. It is crucial to see the difference between guilt and shame and regret. Guilt and shame are negative, harmful feelings that do us no good. We must have regret that is aimed at a solution, at positivity, and at bettering ourselves.
The second is the Power of Support. This is essentially the action of taking refuge in the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha). When we perform a negative action that we wish to purify, we must share it with the Buddha and with the Sangha, and follow the Dharma. We also must practice compassion and love toward all sentient beings, practicing Bodhicitta.
The third is the Power of Resolve. The Power of Resolve consists of promising to cease the action committed. If we harmed someone by a certain thought, action, or way of speech, we resolve to work on not behaving in such a way.
The final power is the Power of Antidote or Power of Practice. This involves taking action to better ourselves. To combat ignorance, we may read texts or work with a teacher. To combat anxiety or anger, we may meditate. The list goes on and on, as there is always action we may take. We may go to those we have harmed and let them know of the Four Powers, or our action to better our behavior. We may let them know we regret our actions, we are seeking support, we have resolved to not behave this way anymore, and that we are taking action to better our behavior.
Karma and the Twelve Steps: Buddhist Amends
If you are familiar with Twelve-Step programs, you read about the Four Powers and probably notice a similarity to several steps. Having regret and looking for support is very similar to the Fourth and Fifth Step. The Power of Resolve is similar to the Sixth and Seventh Steps. The Power of Practice is congruent with the 8th and 9th Steps. We may use these concepts in perfect congruence with our programs. As with any concept, we take what we need and leave the rest.
“We attempt to sweep away the debris which has accumulated out of our effort to live on self-will and run the show ourselves. If we haven’t the will to do this, we ask until it comes. Remember it was agreed at the beginning we would go to any lengths for victory of alcohol.”
“Above all, we should try to be absolutely sure that we are not delaying because we are afraid. For the readiness to take the full consequences of our past acts, and to take responsibility for the well-being of others at the same time, is the very spirit of Step Nine.”
I often hear people quote the line in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous where it says, “Resentments are our #1 Offender.” I have taken this line as gospel, and done everything possible to purge myself of resentments. Furthermore, I try to prevent from acquiring resentments in the first place. However, after having a discussion with one of the most special people in my life, I have come to a somewhat contradictory conclusion.
I have found in my recovery that I must continue to take personal inventory ON PAPER. Simply trying to do it in my head does not work, and I fall behind. Furthermore, when I am doing a written inventory, I must also take the action to make amends where they are due.
The Twelfth Step of Alcoholics Anonymous states that we “try to carry this message to alcoholics, and practice these principles in all our affairs.” I think that some people understand this step differently than I do, and I would very simply like to share how I work my Step 12.
Many meetings across the country read the beginning of Chapter Five, entitled “How it Works.” A part of the reading says, “If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it – then you are ready to take certain steps.” This is important to remember both for newcomers and those with time.
I see newcomers who are homeless, struggling to eat, and an emotional wreck inside. I ask if they are truly willing to go to any lengths necessary to get better. I know I was. Whatever my sponsor suggested, I did, even if I did not see the purpose.
Although when I was new I was able to see this, I have had times where I have forgotten this. Later in the book, in Chapter Six, the book says, “Remember it was agreed at the beginning we would go to any lengths for victory over alcohol.”
I must remind myself at times that I had conceded to my innermost self that I was alcoholic. I must work today as hard for my sobriety as I did when I first got sober.
Sometimes amends cannot be made to one’s face. Whether because of legal restrictions, courtesy to the person, or compassion toward others, amends sometimes should not be made directly to one’s face. This is not up to me to tell you where and when to make amends. I have had a hard time dealing with the concept of “living amends,” and would like to share my thoughts as well as hear others’.
For me, living amends are a daily process. For some things, there may be direct actions I may take. For example, the way I treated my family was horrendous. Today, I make amends by being there for them when they need me. I have a relationship with them, and practice coming from a place of love when I am frustrated.
For other amends, I must simply live in a positive way. There are some things that I can never fix, but I can only move forward. I practice living in a way for myself that will ensure I do not act in those ways again.
Making amends is for me as well as for the other person. When I am living right and acting right, I am able to look back at my behavior and feel alright about it. I do not regret the past today nor wish to shut the door on it. When I am living in a healthy way, and look back at my actions, I am driven to excel even more. Making amends builds esteem, and helps me bring out my true nature.
The Ninth Step Promises have and still are coming true every day for me. Through practicing the Eightfold Path, I find daily amends to come naturally. The esteem I have gained is not quantifiable. I am infinitely more happy living a daily amends, and although I have harmed people in my past, I know I can be forgiven. I trust that my higher power forgives me, and I need to practice forgiving myself. If I do not practice the twelve steps and the Eightfold Path in all my affairs, I cannot forgive myself. When I do, forgiveness is a direct result.